***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June-July ’22, No. 321)***
With approximately 90% of all startups failing within years of their inception, how can someone who owns and operates a studio in the animation and film effects industry outlast the competition? The answer is three-fold: Marketing, innovation and trust.
Marketing above all else, in my opinion, is the foundation upon which a company either thrives or dives.
You could do everything else right — have the best talent, the best demo reel, the best pricing structure, the best resume — but if you don’t get all of these wonderful things in front of enough of the right potential clients, you will ultimately be dead in the water.
In addition to continually marketing new potential clients, you must continually stay in front of your existing clients — even the most loyal ones — because chances are they won’t go out of their way to track you down when they need something. It only takes a split second for a competitor to catch their eye, but it takes years to develop a loyal client that provides persistent, recurrent work.
More than simply staying in front of clients and new leads, you must focus on showing the most powerful benefits a client will receive from engaging in a transaction with you. They care less about how many hours of experience you have on 3D software and much, much more about how your experience would benefit them.
Oh the times, they are a-changin’ — therefore, so must your business. While keeping your core values and basic services intact is important, you must evolve and offer something new periodically, otherwise you risk being lapped by the competition. Imagine a client searching for an animation company to produce a 30-second spot for one of their products: When they view demo reels and proposals, do you think they will be more impressed with an animation house that continually pushes the envelope, making strides in both style, quality and technology, or will they more likely choose an animation studio whose demo reel has not evolved in the past five years?
Innovating is about more than simply evolving your animation, it’s about embracing technology, time-savers and new team leaders that can give a fresh take on your standard operating procedures. Most important, however, is that these innovations benefit your clients in bigger and better ways than ever before, and that you clearly demonstrate these benefits to your clients. Otherwise, it’s a moot point.
Innovation can also include improvements in efficiency. For example, if you can find ways to produce and deliver the same quantity and quality of work at a cost-savings, this can go a long way toward keeping your business afloat. Saving money on overhead and other operating costs by default will increase your profit margin, sometimes by as much as 50%, 100% or more, so the value of innovating your production pipelines can be exponentially beneficial.
The “T” Word
Loyal clients are the key to sustenance in business and trust is the key to developing and keeping loyal clients forever. The best way to establish trust is to always deliver — no matter what. Once you commit to a project for a specified budget with a specified delivery date, you absolutely, positively must make good on your promise. Clients don’t want to hear excuses, they expect results. You can lose a client’s trust forever by missing a single deadline, by delivering poor quality work or by submitting a bigger invoice than expected.
Clients also need to trust that you will not overcommit. Oftentimes, service providers (especially startups and very small businesses) will try to grab all the billable work they can even if it’s outside of their wheelhouse. While this “we-can-do-anything-and-want-to-help-our-clients-any- way-we-can” attitude is admirable, it inevitably leads to tremendous stress, missed deadlines and sub-par quality work, because they weren’t honest with themselves regarding their own expertise and ability to commit. And even worse — they weren’t honest with the client. Overcommitting, especially in areas that are not your specialty, is an almost sure-fire way to botch a project and lose a client forever.
Staying competitive in the animation and VFX industry is challenging, especially for the small, independent business owner, but focusing on marketing, innovation and building trust with your clients will ensure a long, fruitful career.
Martin Grebing is the president of Funnybone Animation Studios. He can be reached at funnyboneanimation.com.